The Historicity Of Christ

The Tuesday before our Lord was crucified, Jesus asked the following all-important question, “What think ye of Christ? whose son is he?” (Mt. 22:42). They did not answer his question correctly because they did not understand the true nature of Jesus. But even today, this question demands an answer from each of us.

Christianity depends on the historical existence of Christ. The historical Jesus began a religious movement which has shaken this world as has no other. Yet some writers have actually denied the actual historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Around the middle of the 19th century, Bruno Barr, a German theologian and historian, taught that Jesus never lived. He said he was a mythical figure. [Wayne Jackson, Essays In Apologetics, vol. 2, Apologetics Press, 1986, p. 29] A Professor Macintosh of the Yale School of Religion, published a book in 1926 entitled, The Reasonableness of Christianity, in which he argues at length that “belief in the historicity of Jesus is not indispensable, logically, to the exercise of an essentially Christian faith or to the living of an essentially Christian life” (138-139). Thus, he says if Jesus never lived at all, we could still maintain the “Christian faith.” Of course, such a view is ridiculous!

In a debate sponsored by the Associate students of a Midwestern University, the opponent of Josh McDowell, a congressional candidate for the Progressive Labor Party (Marxist) in New York, said in her opening remarks: “Historians today have fairly well dismissed Jesus as being historical….” [Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict, Here’s Life Pub., 1979, p. 81]

The cover of the December 1994 issue of LIFE magazine revealed an artist’s rendering of Jesus with the question “Who Was He?” In a short article they stated, “to some, Jesus is the Son of God, born to a virgin….the anointed, the Christ. To others he is just a man who inspired, through his teachings and exemplary life, ‘several faiths now incorporated into Christianity’. And to still others he’s a myth, a novelistic invention of Paul, and then, the Gospel writers, who required a charismatic anchor for their nascent (early) churches. He is, they say, an idea.” In this issue of Life magazine they interviewed many eminent thinkers. One of them, Jon Murray, the President of American Atheists, stated, “There was no such person in the history of the world as Jesus Christ. There was no historical, living, breathing, sentient human being by that name. Ever. [The Bible] is a fictional, nonhistorical narrative. The myth is good for business.”

In spite of these preceding quotes, most respectable scholars, and serious historians do not question the historicity of Jesus. As F. F. Bruce has written, “Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth,” but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The Historicity of Christ is an axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories” [Evidence That Demands A Verdict, p. 81].

There was a real historical person named Jesus of Nazareth who lived, had a tremendous influence upon people and died by crucifixion. To prove this, notice three lines of evidence.

In the first place, notice the New Testament as evidence of the historicity of Christ. The New Testament documents present to us the historical Jesus, They give us an accurate portrait of Him. Since the historical evidence for the New Testament is overwhelming, its portrayal is historical. The Scriptures representation of Christ cannot be rationalized away or dismissed with a wave of the hand. While lecturing at Arizona State University, lecturer Josh McDowell was approached by a professor. He said, “Mr. McDowell, you are basing all your claims about Christ on a second-century document that is obsolete. I showed in class today how the New Testament was written so long after Christ that it could not be accurate in what it recorded.” The Professor was incorrect. In the 20th century, archaeological discoveries have gone a long way in confirming the historical accuracy of the New Testament manuscripts and their first-century origin. Discoveries of early papyri manuscripts (the John Rylands manuscript of 130 A.D., The Chester Beatty Papyri of 155 A.D., and the Bodmer Papyri II of 200 A.D., helped bridge the gap between the time of Christ and existing manuscripts from a later date [Roy Abraham Varghese, ed., The Intellectuals Speak Out About God, p.265, 267].

The evidence for the New Testament is much greater than the evidence of classical writers. For example, at least 24,633 manuscripts and portions of the New Testament have been documented. In all of ancient history, the second book in line after the New Testament in manuscript testimony is The Iliad by Homer. Yet, it has only 643 surviving manuscripts. Dr. Clark Pinnock concluded after extensive research: “There exists no document from the ancient world, witnessed by so excellent a set of textural and historical testimonies and offering so superb an array of historical date on which an intelligent decision may be made. An honest person cannot dismiss a source of this kind. Skepticism regarding the historical credentials of Christianity is based upon an irrational bias” (Clark Pinnock, Set Forth Your Case, Craig Press, 1968, p. 58).

The New Testament gives an accurate picture of Jesus Christ to us as Son of man and Son of God.

In the second place, notice these Jewish writers as evidence of the historicity of Christ. Josephus, a Jewish historian, lived from around 37 to 100 A.D. He spoke of John the Baptist. He also wrote, “Ananius, the high priest, assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, this brother’s name was james, also some of his companions, and, when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he had them stoned” [Jewish Antiquities, XX, 9.1]. In another passage he wrote: “Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew many after him both of the Jews and the Gentiles. He was Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the chief men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that had previously followed him did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive on the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and many other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named after him, is not extinct at this day” [Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 3.1]. Some have questioned this passage as a possible interpolation. In defense of the passage it does appear in every copy of Josephus that has come down to us and was quoted twice by Eusebius as early as 315 A.D.

The Jewish Talmud is the civil law of the Jews consisting of the Mishna (text) and the Gamara (commentary). In the Talmud there are some occasional references to Jesus but most of them are vulgar and unquotable. They are deliberately intended to contradict events in the gospel accounts and attack the Lord’s credibility. However, the fact that the Jewish rabbis from the close of the first century on down have attempted so many attacks upon Jesus helps to prove the reality of his earthly life. In their attempts to deny his divinity, they prove his historicity!

In the third place, notice these Roman Writers as evidence of the historicity of Christ. It is true that we do not have a large number of references to Christ and even to Christians outside of the New Testament in the pagan literature of the first and second centuries. This is not because Christ and Christians were not in existence. Lots of factors may be attributed to this including prejudice, indifference, a total lack of interest, or the early seeming insignificance of Christ and Christianity to much of the world. Literature of this period is scarce anyway and much of it consists of biographies of the rulers of that time and court records. Nevertheless and fortunately, there is preserved some evidence of the historicity of Christ by Roman historians. Tacitus was a famous Roman historian who lived from around 55 to 117 A.D. Around the turn of the century he wrote his Annals in which he discussed the burning of Rome in A.D. 64. At this time Nero had been accused of having burned the city. “To suppress the rumor, Nero falsely accused and punished, with the most acute tortures, persons who, already hated for their shameful deeds, were commonly called Christians. The founder of that name, Christus, has been put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, in the reign of Tiberious; but the deadly superstitution, though repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through the city (Rome) whither all things horrible and vile flow from all quarters, and are encouraged” [Annals 15:44].

Suetonius, another Roman historian who lived from around 65 to 135 A.D. wrote in his “Life of Claudius,” “Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.” This passage undoubtedly confirms Acts 18:2 that Claudius commanded all Jews to leave Rome. This included Priscila and Aquila and proves there were Christians in Rome as early as Claudius. It is well known that the name “Chrestus” was sometimes used of the heathen people for our Savior.

A Roman by the name of Pliny who lived from around 62 to 114 A.D. wrote to Trajan, when Pliny was Governor of Bithynia, to ask what he should do about the Christians. “They affirmed that the sum of their guilt or error was to assemble on a fixed day before daybreak, and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to God, and to bind themselves with an oath not to enter into any wickedness, or to commit thefts, robberies or adulteries, or falsify their work or repudiate trusts committed to them: when these things were ended, it was their custom to depart and on coming together again, to take food, men and women together, yet innocently.”

Hegesippus, in writing of Domitian who reigned between 81 and 96 A.D. says, “There were at the time yet remaining the kindred of Christ the grandsons of Jude, who was called his brother according to the Flesh. These come accused as being of the race of David, and Evocatus brought them before Domitianus Caesar; for he too, was afraid of the coming of Christ, as well as Herod.”

Lucian, lecturer, author, master of wit and sarcasm and called the Grecian “Mark Twain” is believed to have been born around 124 A.D. He wrote that the founder of the Christian religion was a man who had been fixed to a stake in Palestine, and was still worshipped because he had established a new code of morals.

What is the value of these statements of famous Jewish and Roman writers? They are valuable because they help to show absolutely that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. Such evidence is not necessary to one who accepts the New Testament as historically true. But since there are those who will boldly assert that Jesus never really lived among men, this additional evidence proves that such an assertion is completely false.

Friends, Jesus of Nazareth really did live. He is a historical figure. And the historical evidence about the life of Christ and His message gives us every reason to accept the gospel accounts of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension unto Heaven above.

“What will you do with Jesus my friend? Neutral you cannot be: Someday your heart will be asking, O friend, ‘What will He do with Me?'”

— Mike McDaniel